Ben Sparks has written thoughtfully in these pages about the response of our denomination to the apparent shortage of ordained ministers. His words are wise, and his description of a program to enhance the commitment and skills of younger, and more recent seminary graduates leads me to think that the time has come for such an approach. May that work increase.
If I am correct in my understanding of what Ben says about the role of interim pastors, I agree with him at this point. In my opinion, while interim pastors provide useful services, they may also slow down the process of “filling pulpits” more quickly, since having a temporary pastor can seem, to the congregation and its committees, to keep the status quo. No matter that competent, trained persons who do this worthy work are encouraged to assist the church in embarking on a program of re-visioning, there is the possible perception that the interim pastor can hold the fort, visit the sick, celebrate the sacraments, and provide other services. And, they can.
Where the concept can fall short is that there is a whale of a difference between someone who is a temporary employee, and a pastor who is called to a stable and continuing ministry among the people. To become bound to a congregation by a call is far different from “filling a slot.” A called and installed minister is taking a great risk. She or he is binding self to service of a definite people over an undermined period of time. How little did I know when I assumed the duties of my former pastorate that it would be, indeed, my last one. In good times and bad, for twenty and more years, I was there. A short term, defined period of ministry — a year, or two, or three — is another matter. The interim pastor can always see an “out” in the future. Leaving is expected. For the installed pastor, the situation is different.
Interim pastors, particularly in conflicted situations, do much good. However, a church in great health may need to get on with its work and have an installed pastor at work quickly. A friend of mine, who served a growing and healthy congregation of another denomination, celebrated his last Sunday as pastor by doffing his vestments and handing his keys over, not to an interim pastor, but to the newly called one. Is this the right thing to do? So far, that congregation continues to thrive, and my friend feels very good about the path he took.
The question of Commissioned Lay Pastors is more complex. I speak here with great interest, and with a bit of authority. For almost fifteen years, I served in my presbytery in a number of categories related to the preparation of CLPs and with persons authorized to preach in the churches of presbytery without holding a commission to serve a local congregation on a regular basis. In a presbytery with many small congregations, the employment of these very committed people has been a blessing. Many congregations would have no regular ministrations of word or sacrament without them. One CLP whom I was mentor for in the past is now leading a small congregation in its work. Since he is retired from work in a major industry, he has a good deal of time to offer to that small congregation. I know him to be an excellent preacher, a well-read scholar, a compassionate pastor, and a community leader.
The route to ordination is lengthy and convoluted these days, as it perhaps should be. To complete a seminary course, even with the advent of on-line services, would take valuable time from the work of ministry and the care of people. In West Virginia, this story is repeated in many places. Smaller, isolated churches want to do more than keep going by the employment of supply pastors on Sundays. They need more, and our Commissioned Lay Pastors, working with appropriate mentoring and supervision, can make a difference. The key, though, is adequate oversight. Sometimes it is hard to line up mentors who are able to take the time for, and have an interest in, the success of a lay pastoral ministry program.
It is time, if we are going to continue to make use of CLPs, for our denomination to develop a chapter in the Book of Order that deals specifically with such issues as the preparation of persons for this role, the requirements for commissioning (beyond the answering of the Constitutional Questions), employment, retirement, and benefits. A look at the present Book of Order shows rather brief sections that relate to these issues. There is no process, facilitated by a Committee on Preparation, the candidate for commissioning must go through. Presbyteries have different standards and requirements. Even suggesting amendments to the Book of Order these days may be greeted by hoots of derision, or the Presbyterian equivalent thereof, but a serious study of the present situation and the constitutional issues that might be involved shows that the denomination has allowed a program to develop which, while useful, needs regulation and rationalization.
It is not only the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) that faces these issues. The Episcopal Church in West Virginia, for which I work as a tutor of persons going through the process of development for lay ministries in that church, has had to develop a number of licensing processes for various ministries. Those who would seek ordination in that denomination, either as priests or deacons, must engage in deeper and more extensive study to move towards that goal. Three of the students I tutored last year are being admitted to postulancy for Holy Orders, which is very roughly equivalent to our status of inquirer. The Episcopal Church, of course, has no equivalent to our CLPs who preside at Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Full ministries require ordination.
For Presbyterians, ordination hopefuls have to attend brick and mortar seminaries. Ordination, which was formerly available to certain so-called “exceptional candidates,” is no longer a route often taken.
So, where are we? Where is our denomination these days?
We have before us a number of options. We can, as we do here in West Virginia, continue to prepare persons to do occasional preaching, and also to become commissioned and serve as de facto pastors of congregations. They may be in team ministries, work as solo pastors, serve on church staffs. Their training, by seminary standards, is limited. However, many of our CLPs are persons who have had many years of lay service in the church. Many have extensive secular educations and advanced degrees. They serve well.
Or, we can take a serious look at the way we do things that relate to supporting our small and isolated congregations. We can encourage them to link up with other small churches of our denomination. In small communities, a linkage may work with neighboring churches that have a compatible theology and practice. Churches might be encouraged to close. A Presbytery executive who suggests this direction may have to duck several times!
Think of this. In a small town I know fairly well, there are several small churches, occupying large and handsome buildings, left over from a more prosperous time. Each is holding on to a historic identity. They are Presbyterian, United Methodist, American Baptist, and Disciples of Christ. A small Episcopal Church is down the street. A separatist Anglican group has met in the worship space of the Presbyterian congregation. There are a few other affinity groups in the town. My view is that it is mighty hard to provide a settled, long-term pastoral ministry for congregations in such an area, rich in natural beauty, but limited in what it might offer in the long term.
Mr. Sparks is right on target. I would add that the denomination and its constituent presbyteries must take a hard and close look at the formation and deployments of those who wish to do ministry in our church. We must also make hard decisions about the maintenance of small and struggling congregations.
Lawton Posey is a retired minister of the Presbytery of West Virginia. He continues active in the life of this presbytery while working with the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia in a program called “Equipping the Saints.”